Throngs of devotees of the Black Nazarene on Thursday swarmed the Quirino Grandstand in Rizal Park and some of them removed the crown from the image’s head.
The unruly crowd clambered over barricades to reach the stage where Manila Archbishop Cardinal Antonio Tagle was celebrating Mass and where the statue stood near the altar.
Volunteer marshals and policemen failed to stop the stampede.
The Mass heralded the start of the annual procession that draws millions of devotees and ends at the Quiapo church.
Manila Police District (MPD) deputy director for operations Sr. Supt. Joel Napoleon Coronel estimated the crowd at Quirino Grandstand to be more than 400,000.
More than 8 million were expected to join the procession as it slowly made its way through the narrow streets of Sta. Cruz and Quiapo.
Coronel told reporters the people became more aggressive as they surged to touch the Nazarene, believing that the first person to do so would be rewarded with a miracle.
Tagle was escorted by marshals off the stage to continue the Mass as the unruly devotees took down the image and brought it to the carriage.
Quiapo Rector Clemente Ignacio is confident the statue’s crown would be returned, because of the belief among devotees that whoever stole it will suffer from bad luck.
The crown is made of steel, which has no value, Ignacio said.
Tagle urges millions of devotees to remember the people who were victims of the past calamities that had struck the country.
As the procession lumbered forward, the pilgrims, chanting “Viva, Viva Señor Nazareno! (Long Live Mister Nazarene)”, climbed over one another in the suffocating heat to touch the ebony-hued wooden statue.
“This has been a family tradition for years, and the Nazarene has given us many blessings over the years,” housewife Josephine Manalastas told Agence France-Presse after she and her 80-year-old mother were pulled out by medics from beneath the surging crowd.
They were taken to an ambulance for treatment after a section of the crowd stampeded over a steel barrier protecting the statue’s carriage, shortly before the parade began.
Medics said the two were uninjured. But by mid-afternoon police said 879 people had been treated for various injuries as the life-sized, 406-year-old icon was borne towards its home in a central Manila church.
Church organizers said one person suffered a stroke.
Large numbers of police were mustered to help maintain order along the six-kilometer route, but the procession was crawling so slowly that just over a third of the distance had been covered as dusk fell.
As of midday organizers said this year’s crowd outnumbered the estimated nine million who attended last year, although the number could not be independently verified.
Devotees climbed on each other’s shoulders to kiss the statue or wipe it with white towels and handkerchiefs.
Others fought over a pair of thick lengths of rope that the pilgrims used to pull the carriage.
In scenes reminiscent of a rock concert mosh pit, one determined woman surfed the crowd to reach the icon, only to fall back and sink into the sea of humanity afterwards.
Cloaked in a maroon robe and crowned with thorns while bearing a cross, the Nazarene statue was first brought to Manila by Augustinian priests from Mexico in 1607, decades after the start of Spain’s rule.
The Philippine Red Cross reported that 658 devotees received medical attention during the procession.
Philippine Red Cross safety service officer Rommel Lozada said 60 people were taken to hospitals with serious dehydration and deep cuts in their feet.
The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) followed the progress of the procession through high-definition cameras from its Metro Base in Makati City.
Metrobase Officer Tina Velasco said the state-of-the-art cameras were set up in Quiapo, Roxas Boulevard and Rizal Park.
The three locations were among the 25 traffic control/video surveillance locations around Metro Manila under a new traffic management software system.
“We prioritized the installation of high definition cameras together with the launching of the new traffic signalization system in time for the feast of the Black Nazarene,” she said.
Velasco said Metrobase monitored the situation around the Quiapo church and along the routes of the procession efficiently.
“With the high-tech cameras, our personnel can now pan, tilt and even zoom towards the subject,” she said.
Joining the procession were a number of showbiz celebrities.
Actress and singer Angeline Quinto, who won in the television show, Star Power: Search For The Next Female
Pop Superstar in 2011, said she has been joining the procession since she was nine years old, walking barefoot like most of the devotees. Asked about her petition this year, she said: “pagdadasal ko ang mga kababayan natin, ang mga Pilipino na hindi pa okay ngayon, lalo na ‘yoong mga nasalanta ng bagyo.”
Popular actor Coco Martin is also a Nazarene devotee. In 2007, he attended the annual feast while filming the independent film “Tirador” with director, Brillante Mendoza.
Martin said that after joining the procession and touching the image, blessings have poured in his life.
With Reports From Jaime Pilapil, Ritchie A. Horario, Sheila Mañalac, and AFP